By Davenport Institute for Public Engagement & Civic Leadership at Pepperdine University and originally posted on Catalyst

As we approach a year since the initial lockdowns, we are beginning to register and process the effects of pandemic-induced lifestyle changes. Most analyses of the digital workplace either cite the feeling of being “Zoomed out” or celebrate the benefits of working from home. These points are valid, but I fear we may be missing the forest for the trees.

A recent article in The Atlantic examined the way relationships have changed in the wake of the pandemic, particularly how different types of relationships have adapted to an online world. In the last 12 months we have worked hard to stay connected with our close, inner circle of friends and loved ones; but many of us have lost the outer circle, the peripheral relationships. The Atlantic article describes these relationships as “the guy who’s always at the gym at the same time as you, the barista who starts making your usual order while you’re still at the back of the line, the co-worker from another department with whom you make small talk on the elevator.”

Zooming in (pun intended) on the peripheral relationships in our workplaces encourages us to think about how engagement has changed in those workplaces. Early in the pandemic, the Davenport Institute hosted a webinar with Engaging Local Government Leaders on “work from home” best practices. We explored tips on intentionally maintaining a balance of social and professional interaction given the loss of break room conversations. Some of those engagement mechanisms included socially distanced walking meetings and virtual book clubs. While those are helpful, they are limited to the inner circle in the workplace i.e. the immediate team.

But what about everyone else?

A focus on the inner circle in every type of relationship has adversely affected not only engagement within the workplace but also community building outside the workplace. I am close to my supervisor and direct reports, but I can count on one hand the relationships I have fostered across departments which have grown into friendships.

Organic social interactions in the breakroom or hallway provide a respite in an otherwise busy work environment. Those interactions are often the time gaps that allow us to get to know our colleagues beyond their title and responsibilities. There is no digital equivalent, but there are ways in which we can seek to regain peripheral relationships while working from home.

To reestablish the outer circle, we must first recreate the environments which foster the peripheral relationships. For example, arriving to Zoom calls early is the digital equivalent of walking into a meeting room early and chatting about the weekend. If the meeting group is small enough, allowing team members to stay unmuted creates a digital openness to chime in with thoughts without the awkwardness of unmuting then waiting to be called upon. Zoom background themes for meetings could service as the jumping off point for casual conversation on favorite foods or dream vacations.

While it is impossible to fully recreate digitally what was lost during the shift to online, there is still hope for rebuilding some of the outer circle. The first step is to acknowledge that there was an outer circle and that it is now missing. Next, we must seek ways to recreate the environments which fostered those relationships and allow ourselves a social break from the litany of emails and Zoom meetings. Who knows, we may even make new work friends while working from home.